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Kevin McCarthy’s speaker bid is accelerating toward chaos

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become House speaker was thrown into even greater peril Tuesday when Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs announced he will challenge McCarthy on the House floor during the Jan. 3 vote.

Biggs previously lost to McCarthy in a closed-door GOP caucus vote 188-31. This new challenge is also likely to come up short, but, critically, it will probably prevent McCarthy from becoming House speaker on the first ballot cast Jan. 3. When the entire House convenes, McCarthy will need 218 votes (or a majority of the total number of people who show up) to become speaker of the House.

The California Republican’s math problem is well documented: He can only afford four GOP defections, and there are five members who say they will not vote for him. Biggs officially soliciting votes will likely cause McCarthy to come up short of 218 on the first ballot. Members are free to vote for whoever they want; in 2021, two moderate Democrats — Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Jared Golden of Maine — refused to vote for Nancy Pelosi and instead cast protest votes for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (neither of whom sought the speakership), respectively.

Assuming Democrats are united in backing Pelosi’s successor Jeffries, the likeliest outcome is that none of McCarthy, Jeffries or Biggs reach 218 on the first ballot. That will trigger subsequent votes, as under House rules, the voting will continue until a majority of the body can decide on a speaker.

If McCarthy goes down on the first ballot, there are several chaotic outcomes that could come to pass. One possible outcome is that McCarthy caves and gives the defectors everything they want related to rule changes, including a measure that’d allow any one member to call a vote on McCarthy’s removal at any time. Another outcome is that one of Reps. Steve Scalise or Jim Jordan — both of whom are currently backing McCarthy but are preferred by Biggs and other hard-line members — step in and claim the speakership for themselves. There have been whispers that New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin may also step in at the last second if McCarthy can’t get a majority. The speaker of the House does not need to be a member of the body.

Finally, moderate Republicans could team up with Democrats to nominate someone palatable to both groups. Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon has said he will entertain this scenario, but ruled out outgoing Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as a possible compromise candidate. Outgoing Michigan Rep. Fred Upton has been mentioned as someone moderate Republicans and Democrats could rally behind.

There are a ton of ways this saga could conclude should McCarthy come up short on the first ballot, and Biggs’ announcement Tuesday makes it very likely that happens.